Simplicity Monday: Children and Sports

It was a most beautiful fall weekend here in the Deep South…and I spent the majority of my weekend at a continuing education course for my physical therapy license renewal.  It was long hours in class, but very interesting information.  In the Pediatric Sports Medicine track I attended, there was a really interesting session regarding “Youth In Sports:  Are We Pushing Too Hard?” and I wanted to bring this information to you all because it is so important.

This information comes from the medical community – doctors, athletic trainers and therapists –  who love and care for student athletes and who really do want children to have free play and yes,  also to be on the field too,  but in a safe and healthy way.

The presentation opened up with a case study of a student athlete who was practicing a certain sport three hours a day, conditioning for an hour, plus scheduled practice at night, plus weekend tournaments, and was being homeschooled because there was not much time available for other activities.

The kicker?  The student was ten years old.

There were many other case studies of student athletes, who by the age of 15 or 16, had had three or more surgeries due to sports injuries, plus hours of rehabilitation.

The presentation went through how in the past, children played games that children created and ran themselves.  The goal was to have fun, the rules were flexible, teams and the players on the team were often switched,  and sometimes better “athletes” were given handicaps to compensate for their athletic prowess.   This was typical when I was growing up, and maybe when you were growing up as well.  Organized sports started somewhere around the later middle school years typically or even first year of high school.

A lot has changed in recent years.  Now forty million children sign up for organized sports each year in the United States.   In contrast to those games of childhood we remember, organized sports are led by adults, with adult rules that are inflexible.  The goal is winning, being better,  and working as a team to win a goal that is often adult-oriented (ie, MVP trophy, all-stars, etc), often with the best players leading and the rest of the children left behind.  The best facilities are often used for elite, hypercompetitive teams, along with the  best coaches while the “leftovers” often go into community sports where the fields or other equipment may not be as in good a condition and the coaches may be parent volunteers.  (Which in and of itself may not be a bad thing, but this particular session was looking at such factors as safety – for example,  the elite clubs may have better access to athletic trainers and medical personnel on the sidelines when injuries and concussion occur as opposed to parent-led clubs).  Most youth coaches, whether professional or a volunteer,  are not typically trained in childhood development so sometimes developmental readiness cues to play an organized sport are not known and the way practices are conducted completely miss the developmental stage of the child.

The kicker to all of this is that recent statistics show by age fourteen, 73 percent of children who were in organized sports DROP OUT.  It is no longer fun.  My family went through this ourselves last year with our then fifth grader, and I can attest to this.

The way we as parents get into this, even those of us who have knowledge about this area, is that there is often a snowball effect of children showing considerable talent for a sport and then the parents are encouraged by the coach to have the child specialize.  This then moves into a considerable financial and family commitment on behalf of this child to a certain sport with exclusion of other activities.  If this continues, and the child then later becomes ambivalent about playing or injured, the child may be pressured to continue to play even if they don’t want to anymore.  Some of my colleagues are actually seeing children who are feigning pain because they don’t want to return to play but they don’t want to tell their parents.

It may be that they do not want to shatter their parent’s dreams:  an informal survey of 376 parents of elementary and middle school children’s parents showed that forty percent of them hoped their children would play at the college level , and  22 percent expected their children to become pro.

The reality is that less than 7 percent of high school players will go on to become college players, and that 82 percent of college scholarship funds do not go to athletics but to things other than sports.  Many of the athletic scholarships are partial scholarships at best, as college coaches try to use their monies to build a team.  An average  four-year scholarship for 138,216 Division I schools surveyed awarded $10, 409 for FOUR years of college.  One out of every five athletes on scholarship surveyed said that their sports commitment prevented them from taking the major in college that they wanted – not enough time!

Less than 1 percent of high school football players move on to the pros, and less than .5 percent of athletes of other sports do the same.

If we look at who excels in collegiate sports, this session pointed out that  many truly great athletes in college started specializing in their college sport starting around the age of thirteen.  Remember development – a five year old who can truly throw and catch a ball with accuracy will stand out, but eventually most children can throw and catch a ball.  Development catches up, and this is true even in the older childhood years.  But most of all, remember the drop-out rate. If you truly want your child to be a great athlete, wait to specialize and avoid the drop-out that occurs by age fourteen.

As a parent you can help by understanding development and readiness cues to play sports.  You can help by having your child NOT specialize until they hit teenaged years.  You can work with such organizations as Wildcat Baseball, Athletes and Authors, and Soccer In The Streets, who try to help children take ownership of the game themselves with some supervision and encourage participation by all.  You can advocate for better training, education and certification for the coaches working with our children.  You can help develop safety programs and implement them and keep up on the latest safety advances.  My state has a new law going into effect on January 1, 2014 regarding concussions and how return to play should be managed; these are important things to know about if you are the parent of a student athlete or a volunteer coach.  Look at minimizing individual recognition and competition until the teenaged years and encourage lots of free play and sports rotation for those who absolutely must play organized sports.

Ages thirteen to fifteen is the time to specialize in a sport.  Let’s get the word out!  I hope this is also a ball that general pediatricians pick up and talk to their patients and their families about this important topic.

Many blessings,

15 thoughts on “Simplicity Monday: Children and Sports

  1. All of what you are saying is atrocious. Common, but atrocious. And what stuck out most for me was that “22 percent expected their children to become pro”. I had heard many of the details you talk about in the past….the injuries, the loss of interest, the loss of childhood. Kim John Payne speaks a great deal about this.

    Here’s a story for you:
    As my ten year-old daughter was getting ready for bed tonight (literally, TONIGHT!), she said to me, “Mom, we did a graph today in school about how many sports we play.” I said, “Really?” “Yes” she told me, “I was the only one who doesn’t play a sport.” She began to sob. “Mom, some of my classmates play four and five sports.” She takes ballet, plays the violin and is a member of our community 4-H club. I told her “Well, ballet is very athletic.” “Mom, it doesn’t count. To count you either have to be a member of a team or be assigned a jersey.” How silly is that? She was made to feel left out in her classroom because she doesn’t “play a sport”? She was sobbing. Yes, sobbing. We’ve always been adamant that our children only do one outside activity and last year was the first time we let her add to that….the community 4-H club. Violin is through our school system. So, up until last year, she only danced. Which is enough. But she was made to feel bad, abnormal even, because our culture lauds the children who excel at sports and play on multiple teams.

    Sometimes it’s so hard to do what we know is best when society is pushing our children to be “normal”.

    • Terri,
      Hugs and love. The right thing many times is the hard thing! It was so hard to sit in that conference and listen to the stories of these tiny children at 11, 12, 13 whose bodies and brains will not be the same from so many injuries and concussions. It was awful. Why is there not a public health campaign about this? Why aren’t more pediatricians and other health care providers stepping in and starting a discussion about this? It is mind boggling!

    • Definite hugs for your daughter. My kids get asked about sports a lot. They all chose to take gymnastics (even my boys). They get made fun of a lot because it is not a “sport.” Your daughter is learning a lot with dance and violin. I hope she sticks with it and doesn’t get discouraged over the class assignment. I think I might actually mention the absurdity of that assignment to the teacher.

  2. Amen!!! As a pediatric therapist, I have seen many children with adult injuries-ie, rotator cuff tears and A LOT of tendonitis. I now also see a lot of kids with concussions from sports. So not only, are kids getting burned out of sports, they are also getting injured. Can you tell that I feel very strongly about this topic? 🙂 My kids want to play sports which we allow, however, we do not allow travel teams or sticking to one sport. They do multiple activities-at separate times through our area parks and rec department which emphasizes fun and teaching.

    • Divya,
      Yes, those are wonderful articles but what I hope most is that mainstream resources, and especially health care providers really start to step up and talk about this issue. I think it would really, at this point, take a public health campaign to tip the scales back toward free play and sports rotation for those younger than the teenaged years. Things have changed dramatically in the past thirty years or so, and it is going to take a whole nation in order to get things back where they need to be.
      Thanks for reading, and being here — did you make it through all the posts?

    • Am in January of 2012 Carrie – getting there – there’s so much to absorb nd ponder on…
      Thank you for all the wisdom…and inspiration.

  3. As the mother of an athlete, I agree so much with what you have written here. All around me I see young people burning out after years of being pressured in their sport. So years of hard work, thousands of dollars spent on equipment, and many sacrifices on the part of parents and child, including health, ultimately come to nothing. There’s also the financial aspect. In our field, young people are required to travel to overseas competitions, at their own cost, if they want to succeed. This means talent matters not at all if you haven’t got money or parents who are willing to go into debt. Imagine the stress on a young person, knowing so much money has been spent on them but wanting to leave the sport ….

    I am not against young people working to have a sports career, but I agree with leaving specialisation until 14 at least, and I wish coaches and admin had a better understanding of child development, child psychology, as well as some compassion.

  4. what is also sad is that because the 40 million children begin so early, the bar is now raised by the time 13-15 year olds want to play and my child isn’t skilled enough to be on a team with the kids who have been playing for 8-10 years already. Ugh!
    Terri my heart goes our to you and your daughter nothing is more frustrating. Thankfully YOU are a much louder voice in her head and through you this won’t have much baring on her in the BIG picture!

  5. Dear Carrie,
    the situation here in Italy is not so hard except the soccer matter! If you have a boy, it’s hard he won’t ask you to play soccer and soccer teams are awful: parents do insult the referee or other player’s and player’s parents. Soccer is an old italian tradition but it’s not plyed anymore on the streets, on the play ground. I mean not so often, it’s more ruled into clubs and all that comes with it. Soccer palyers are also not a very good ethic example here in Italy.
    Girls are forced into ballet and gymastic. I played gymnastics, I performed contemporary dance (like Martha Graham style), I do so love the art of dancing. But I’m not taking Greta to dance lessons. Her body is not ready enough to be forced into some shapes. If there was a teacher able to teach the art, able to know the human body and its developmenatl stages, I would but in my area I haven’t found any yet. Besides that she’s still too young, 8 and a half.
    My daughter started athletics this year because it’s in an open field in a park and it’s made outodoors all the time. But…! She was supposed to train 3 times a week and they also ask to take part to sunday’s competition. And my daughter too sobbed: she’s the only one going once a week and we didn’t feel like already taking part in competition even if we discovered they are games with no winners and that’s good but it’s a busy activity on the weekends.
    My daughter’s school mates do 2/3 different sports, can you believe it? Horse back riding, swimming, athletics or ballet, or volleyball/basketball.
    It’s a crazy world, I’m sorry Greta is sobbing because we think so different but I feel we are right.


  6. I completely agree. I was just talking to my cousin a couple of weeks ago, and he was saying that his kids were playing baseball like every day of the week between games and practices, and they aren’t even in high school.

  7. I wanted to post since we have been those sport fanatic parents, especially our son. Being married to someone who is in the 7% and played division 1 football this has been a real struggle for all of us. We both grew up in Fl where you start playing soccer at 3 yrs old ( I have to admit it wasn’t very competitive when I was young) & to be honest I needed the outlet; I continued to play competitively for 20 years. My husband on the other hand did not play football until he was in the 9th grade and was able to achieve many goals even starting that late in life(3 is so late in life:). I think much obsession with sports is cultural;everything centered around athletes, their money(contract deals), many products are being sold by athletes & they are revered by many. As parents you can get sucked into the vortex of it all very easily especially when you have talented athletes as children and your children can get sucked in too. We needed to find a balance; so pulled way back about three years ago when our son was 9. We could see his love for sports was fading; he was being pushed to hard,training instead of playing, missing birthday parties to travel to games. We made a decision then to take him out of most competitive sports (except recreational basketball he just loves it) we also drew back our expectations of him too. Yes, we were those parents. ( you might think we would be ashamed ,but to be honest that was how we were raised and it is a hard pattern to change). I am happy to say we have changed and our son started his first year of pad football this fall and loved it! Sports can be wonderful tool and teach children many life lessons it just needs to kept in perspective.

    To Finding the Balance:)


    • Andrea,
      Never be ashamed! We pulled our oldest out of rhythmic gymnastics last year for the same reasons; we got sucked up into the vortex of what was needed to happen for competition later in the year (in rhythmic gymnastics there are only about three competitions a year or so where we are, but lots of practice). It is easy to go there. The girls are riding horses at a very laid back barn right now, and it is great.

      We all have to strive to find our path!

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